Sunday 13 November 2022

Dartford parkrun

Dartford is a town in Kent with a population of around 115,000 people. The area is thought to have been inhabited since pre-historic times, at least 250,000 years ago. The beginnings of the town we know today came from around 2,000 years ago when the Romans built the main road from Dover to London. The road had to cross the River Darent via a ford resulting in the town initially being known as Darentford (recorded in the Domesday book as Tarentford). The name Darent is thought to mean 'clear water'. The first substantial settlement is thought to have been set up in Saxon times. In the 14th century Dartford Priory was established and this remained until King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the Priory closed down c.1539 and the estate was transferred to the Crown.

Henry VIII upgraded the Manor House (using some of the stone from Barking Abbey) and by 1545 had added a Gatehouse. It is known that Henry held meetings of his Privy Council here and for 5 days in 1545 Dartford was the seat of the national government. King Henry's fourth wife and Queen of England, Anne of Cleves was given the Manor House as part of her divorce settlement and resided here for a number of years before her death in 1557. The Gatehouse and part of the original priory wall survive to this day. The Gatehouse can be found on Priory Road along with part of the wall which also runs along Victoria Road.

around the town: gatehouse / library / station / church tower

Dartford has many other links to royalty and other historic events. Henry III's sister, Isabella, was married by proxy here in 1235 to the German emperor Frederick II. Wat Tyler is said to have assembled in Dartford with his rebels during the Peasants Revolt before marching towards London. In 1415 Henry V is said to have attended a thanksgiving with 700 soldiers in Dartford's Holy Trinity Church after victory at the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War. Just a few years later, in 1422, his body rested here while being taken from France to Westminster for his funeral. It is known that the Duke of York camped on an elevated area known as The Brent with his army (allegedly 10,000 men) during the War of the Roses, in preparation for a battle with Henry VI who had assembled at Blackheath. The duke eventually reached a settlement with the King (or surrendered) and no battle took place.

The good water quality of the river lead to many water-based industries such as brewing, fulling and fabric printing becoming based in the town. In 1588 Dartford was the site of England's first paper mill and England's first Iron-slitting mill was opened here in 1590. The site of the paper mill was subsequently used in the manufacture of gunpowder. Mining engineer and inventor, Richard Trevithick, designer of the first working railway steam locomotive, lived in Dartford for the final year of his life. He had been working at the Messrs J&E Hall manufactoring company which occupied the site of the Priory. He died here penniless in 1833 and is buried in St Edmund's Pleasance burial ground which is at the top of East Hill. However, as many grave stones were removed the exact position of his body is unknown. A commemorative plaque can be found within the grounds. It is also a great spot to look at the view over the town.

around the town: library and flowers / bridge / the wat tyler / mick jagger / war memorial

The Buroughs Wellcome chemical works, founded by Sir Henry Wellcome, had a large presence in the town. Through a series of mergers it eventually became part of the GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company which continued the link with Dartford, however in 2008 GSK announced that they would be leaving the town - this has now happened and the land redeveloped into housing. Dartford was home to the Littlebrook power station which featured one of the tallest chimneys in the country. The power station closed down for good in 2015 and the chimney was demolished in 2019. We used to be able to see it from our front room window, and I had a soft spot for it. I remember watching it come down early one Sunday morning. The site is now home to an Amazon warehouse. Another interesting and quite random fact is that Dartford is home to a grape vine, planted next to the river not far from the train station, in 1979. In 1990 the vine set a new world record for heaviest grape crop, weighing in at 5,071 pounds. The vine is known as the wonder vine.

The famous pop artist Peter Blake was born in Dartford, he designed a number of album covers for musical artists such as The Who, Paul Weller and Oasis, but most notable is his work on co-creating the cover for The Beatles album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. While on the subject of music, the town was the birthplace of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (check out the new statues on the High Street). They attended the same primary school together, but then lost touch. They famously met again on platform two of Dartford Railway Station in 1961 and of course went to be part of one of the most famous rock and roll bands of all time. They are one of many famous bands who used Vox amps which were manufactured in Dartford by Jennings Musical Industries. The town centre is also home to the Goodman Dance Academy which was set up in the 1970s by Strictly Come Dancing judge, Len Goodman.

central park

The modern-day Dartford is largely a commuter town for workers in London, but the most famous landmark is probably the Dartford Crossing where the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge dominates the sky line. The main shopping area in the town centre suffered greatly upon the opening of the nearby Bluewater Shopping Centre, but recent developments have lead to the appearance being improved in recent years. To the south of the High Street is Dartford's main public green space, Dartford Central Park. A small section of land had been donated to the town and the initial park opened in 1905. Over the years features have come and gone, and the most-recent expansion was the purchase of land formerly owned by GlaxoSmithKline, which brought the total size of the park up to 26 acres.

It features very well kept flower gardens (45,000 plants are planted each year to create these) as well as a circular flower-bed where an intricate design can be found. This changes every year or so and tends to feature designs that mark significant occasions such as the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, which is the design at time of writing. There is a children's playground (a complete redesign is due in early 2023), cafe, bandstand, skate park and open sports pitches, plus the River Darent discreetly flows through the centre. At the far south of the park is a sports track which is home to Dartford Harriers and Central Park Athletics. The track, which now has a distinctive blue surface, is notable as the location of Zola Budd's first race on British soil which attracted a large crowd and was broadcast live on BBC's Grandstand. She won the race and set the venue's female 3,000m track record, and I believe it still stands today. 

dartford parkrun start and opening section

The athletics track clubhouse is the base for the park's free, weekly, timed 5k event called Dartford parkrun. I have a strong personal link to this venue, not only is it my home parkrun, I was involved in its creation and part of the core team during the first few years of operation. Meeting my friends at 7.30am on a Saturday to set the course up week after week, even through the winters, remain as some of my best parkrun memories. I gradually stepped back from being in the core team and now tend to help out every now and then as the tail walker, which I really enjoy doing.

For anybody visiting, Dartford is of course not far from the M25 so is quite simple to get to. The athletics track has a car park and this can be used by parkrun attendees for the duration of the event. If parking there it is worth noting that on some weeks the car park is only available until a certain time, usually 11am. If cycling there are cycle racks at the main entrance of the park near the town centre and outside the park's cafe, but most cyclists tend to use the fence around the athletics track area to secure their bike. Many local buses pass through the town and the main hub of bus stops is located next to the train station (the buses also used to stop outside the park, but the redeveloped town centre means they no longer take this route).

bridges and off-road section

Dartford has good train links and the station is a significant hub which has three different lines running in and out of London, as well as a line which goes off deeper into north Kent. The station is about 1km from the parkrun meeting area, but after about 500 metres the route enters the park itself. You just have to walk across to the far side. As far as toilets are concerned, the general public toilets within the park are located less then a minute from the athletics track, however there are toilets within the track's clubhouse that parkrunners are free to use. Bags and belongings can also be left in here.

The parkrun itself starts right outside the track entrance with the start line conveniently placed in-between two trees. First-timers and the main briefings take place on the grass here before the event gets underway. The original course was two laps but that was changed to assist in spreading attendees out and to avoid lapping occurring at a particular pinch point. The current course has been in use for the majority of the event's existence. You may hear people refer to the course as a two-and-a-half lapper, but I prefer to describe it as a three lap course. The first lap is a small loop around the main open grass area and this brings everyone back around to the start line about 700 metres later. The remaining two full laps are then commenced with the field nicely spread out.

the football fields and back into the main park

While following the initial same path as the opening lap, the full lap takes a turn over the River Darent via the park's twin bridges. The course then enters an area which most locals have never ventured into. It's a grassy trail path which follows the river and at the end swings in a short uphill section through a wooded area. There are some significant tree routes here so care must be taken, and during periods of heavier rain you may even spot the flow of water running down the path. At the top of this path the route follows the edge of the grass sports fields until reaching the path where the course heads downhill and back across the bridges. A not-that-well-known fact is that underneath the football pitches lies the remains of a Roman Villa. It was first discovered in 1895 and re-excavated in 1979.

Back in the main section of the park the course rejoins the original small loop for a short section before heading round towards the formal flower beds. This area of the park is also home to one of the arches from the town's old medieval bridge which was reconstructed in its present location in 1923. A stream used to flow under it but it is now underground. From here the lap works its way back towards the start/finish area following the path around the bandstand which is officially called the Sir Henry Wellcome Bandstand. It dates from 2010 so is quite a new addition to the park. On Sundays during the summer there are usually a series of free concerts performed by various local brass bands. The route again rejoins the original smaller loop and this now leads round to the start area, which at the end of the final lap is now the finish.

cafe / bandstand / northern section of park

As the course is mixed terrain I find trail shoes better during the winter, especially during the uphill trail section which can be quite slippery when it is wet, however there is still a fair amount of tarmac so some may prefer to stick with road shoes. The course is generally fine for buggy runners, but again it's the uphill trail section which can be problematic - the tree roots in a couple of spots are significantly raised creating quite a lumpy path. Given this section I would say that it is not the best course to attempt if using a wheelchair. Another thing to note is that the parkrun usually suffers from three pre-planned cancellations throughout the year; The Trevithick Steam Fair (May), The Dartford Festival / Dartford's Big Day Out (July) (since Covid these two have been combined into one July event) and then again for the Dartford Fireworks Display (November).

The barcode scanning takes place on the grass next to the finish line and some light refreshments, sweets and crisps can be purchased from the Central Park Athletics clubhouse. For a more significant breakfast the best place would probably be The Flying Boat Wetherspoons near the High Street, but the park also has its own cafe next to the playground.

medieval bridge / end of lap/finish

The results are processed in the clubhouse so would usually be published quite soon after the tailwalker crosses the finish line. The usual attendance figures hover around the 150-200 mark. The GPS data of the course can be found on my Strava account and if you'd like to see a Relive fly-by video I have one on YouTube. I should also note that I have used a selection of photos taken between 2014 and 2022, but the majority were taken in 2022. Most were taken by me but there are others where I cannot find the name of the photographer in order to add a credit.

Related links:

Dartford Heath parkrun (blog7t write-up)

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